From 1915 to approximately 1951 there was a genre of films known as Race Films. These films were primarily written, directed, produced by Black artists, starring Black artists for Black audiences in segregated or Black movie houses. The existence of African American movie studios is probably a total revelation to most people. The independent films and studios created outside of the Hollywood Studio system would later be a source for casting Black roles, including the likes of Paul Robeson and Sidney Poitier.
My darling fellow film aficionado Margarita, sent me a link for an event recently, African American Pioneers in film at NYC ‘s Film Forum. The series features the films of one of the most well-known writer and makers of race films, Oscar Micheaux. Of course that got me thinking about silent films and how The Birth of A Nation, the story of the KKK is seen in the U.S. as a cinematic bright spot. “Technically” speaking of course. But it is far more interesting to me to look at films being made by Black filmmakers at the time to truly learn about Black history, and in essence “American” or U.S. history.
The first Black film production company was The Lincoln Motion Picture Company started by African-American actor Noble Johnson and his brother George in 1916. Noble resigned from the company in 1921 due to the demands of his acting career. He was a large man who was in high demand in both silent and talkies as a character actor. He played many ethnic roles from black to Native and was featured in many popular films from 1915 into the 20s and 30s and continued working into the 1950s. In the early days, all of his film roles pay went directly back into the company. Micheaux and others would follow the Johnsons into the race film business.
From Micheaux’s catalog, I came across several films online. I love the interwebs! Every genre of film ranging from mysteries to musicals, dramas and romance can be found on Youtube if you know the filmmakers names or titles. It is really truly amazing so many of these films are largely forgotten. There are 500 known made race films, of them, approximately 100 are available to watch.
“The race films vanished after United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., or the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, which forced the division of motion picture exhibitors from the motion picture production companies. African-American participation in World War II contributed to the casting of black actors in lead roles in several Hollywood major productions, such as Pinky with Ethel Waters; Home of the Brave with James Edwards; andIntruder in the Dust, all in 1949; and No Way Out (1950), which was the debut of the notable actor Sidney Poitier.” via Wikipedia
The Riverbends Genealogical and Historical Society has an extraordinary playlist of African American films available here on Youtube.
Imitation of Life was the first classic film I saw that featured a women of color in a lead role and it easily won my heart. In the film Pinky listed above, the light skinned African American lead character was played by a white actress. But in both the 1934 and 1959 versions of Imitation of Life, actors of color portray the people of color in the film.
The story is a classic tale of two mothers struggle and sacrifices for their daughters. Two single mothers meet on the beach, both having fallen on hard times, they decide to live and work together to try to get ahead. Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers star in the 1934 version. As their daughters grow up African American actress Fredi Washington plays Beavers daughter, who is removed from African American life and wants to pass.
In the 1959 version, Lana Turner and Juanita Moore are the mothers and Moore’s daughter is played by biracial Mexican American Susan Kohner – daughter of Lupe Tovar. Juanita Moore won an Oscar for supporting actress for her role. She was also nominated for the Golden Globe and Laurel Award for supporting actress. Imitation of Life, both versions, are a Must See. Although Moore’s role in particular is reduced to a maid/personal assistant, they carry the films respectively and give beautiful heartfelt performances.